Not the End of the World: How we can be the first generation to build a sustainable planet Hannah Ritchie
Not the End of the World: How we can be the first generation to build a sustainable planet
One of the features of work on climate change is to be careful with, understand, and make sensible use of data: distinguishing territorial from consumption emissions, for example, or exploring the carbon impact of buses versus cars. From that perspective, Hannah Ritchie is a natural ally: as the former Head of Research, and now Deputy Editor and Science Outreach Lead at Our World In Data, her USP is the deep dive into data. That is very much in evidence in her new book on sustainability. It is wide-ranging, accessible, challenging, and ultimately optimistic. ‘If you are living today’, she concludes,
’you are in a truly unique position to achieve something that was unthinkable for our ancestors: to deliver a sustainable future. I believe that we can be the generation that meets the needs of everyone while leaving the environment in a better state than we found it’.
The optimism, ‘urgent not complacent’, runs through substantive chapters on seven crises facing the world: air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food, biodiversity loss, ocean plastics and overfishing. In each case, we have a largely data-driven history of how we got to where we are, a set of solutions, and some suggestions of things ‘not to stress about’. Often, things aren’t quite as cataclysmic as we think they are: we are not about to empty the sea of fish, for example. Often, things are getting better: air quality in Beijing is an example. And, although it is true that things are actually quite often quite bad, there are technical, policy and behavioural solutions at hand that can bend the curve: eat less meat, regulate waste management, or collect plastic from rivers.
An important argument of the book is that true sustainability means improving the human condition as well as tackling environmental challenges: ‘pulling people out of poverty has to be central to our goal’. It is also important to remember that environmental problems are linked: ‘the interdependencies mean that we can solve a lot in one go’. Renewable energy, for example, both improves air pollution and counteracts climate change. ‘Systemic change’, she says, ‘is key’.
On climate change specifically, Ritchie is pessimistic that warming can be restricted to 1.5 degrees, but optimistic that 2 degrees is within reach. She points to the fact that CO2 emissions per head appear to have peaked, that growth is being decoupled from emissions, and that the falling price of renewables is driving transformation of energy systems. Extreme weather events are more frequent, but deaths from natural disasters have fallen, thanks to better early warning and protection. Change is happening, and can be accelerated, in energy, transport, food, and building.
Thus, Ritchie says:
- Yes, to: renewable energy and nuclear; electric cars and trucks; hydrogen; living in high-density cities; low traffic neighbourhoods; eating less meat and dairy; more efficient and more resilient farming; reduced over-consumption; less food waste; clean cooking fuel; removing sulphur from fossil fuel emissions; carbon capture and storage; carbon pricing; air conditioning. . .
- Stress less about: recycling plastic bottles; plastic straws; replacing old light bulbs; turning off appliances; using a dishwasher; eating locally grown and organic food; palm oil; farmed fish; using plastic bags; landfill; wanting to live in the countryside . . .
Other points that stand out are scepticism about the impact of population growth and opposition to ‘de-growth’.
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It is tempting to dive into detail. Nuclear power, anyone? Or the enthusiasm for artificial meat (I’ve just finished reading Chris Van Tulleken’s polemic on ultra-processed food)? But there are some general issues also.
First, it is right to recognise both the social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. However, it is surprising that Ritchie does not draw on the model of ‘doughnut economics’ pioneered by Kate Raworth (Fig 1): I reviewed Kate’s book here. Nor does she mention the Sustainable Development Goals and e.g. the link to climate compatible development. Kate Raworth is especially good on issues like redistribution and being ‘regenerative by design’, which Ritchie does not touch on: indeed, she has a section sceptical about redistribution as a solution to global sustainability problems, and there is only one reference to a circular economy, in connection with recycling minerals used for renewable energy.
The doughnut of social and planetary boundaries
More important, Ritchie does not have much to say about the choices and trade-offs that lie at the heart of planning. Sometimes, yes, there are co-benefits, as in the example of renewable energy and reduced air pollution. But sometimes, adopting environmentally beneficial policies has adverse social impacts. Ask the steelworkers of Port Talbot. There is only one reference that I can find to ‘just transition’, in a footnote which points out that the pollution clean-up in Beijing, which involved closing coal-fired power stations and removing domestic coal boilers, left many families without heating for a year! It is not just that the social dimensions of sustainability are important; Ritchie recognises that. It is more that taking the social dimensions into account may change the calculus which underpins environmental policy.
Second, on the seven environmental crises (air pollution, climate change, deforestation, food, biodiversity loss, ocean plastics and overfishing). It is interesting to compare this list with the environmental ceilings of the doughnut (above), with the 17 Goals and 169 targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (and the 2023 update report here), but also with the framing of 9 environmental goals for UK policy by the Office of Environmental Protection (Figure 2). Are there some issues missing from Ritchie’s list, for example biosecurity or exposure to hazards?
Nine goals of UK environmental policy
Equally, what is the relative urgency of the different challenges? The latest review of planetary boundaries, published in Science Advances, shows that 6 of the 9 boundaries have been transgressed, with others close to being breached. ‘The transgression level has increased’, the report says, ‘for all boundaries earlier identified as overstepped’. Figure 3 illustrates the problem, with biosphere integrity, novel entities and biogeochemical flows in the high risk zone. Should these then be the priorities for action? Or is there another metric?
Current state of nine planetary boundaries
Finally, on data. Ritchie is an enthusiast for the work of Hans Rosling. Aren’t we all? Factfulness is a great book. Ritchie especially likes his analysis of long-term trends, which shows that the world is getting better on many indicators. Charles Kenny makes a similar argument in the Upside of Down. The core point, however, is the value of data. Ritchie takes care, zooming out to take the long view, and back in again to examine specific issues. She does pretty well stick to Rosling’s Rules of Thumb (Figure 4). However, there are one or two other rules one could suggest, like scepticism. It is notable that most climate analysis, including by the IPCC in its 6th Assessment Report, comes heavily qualified by confidence limits and statements about uncertainty. Ritchie does not allow for much ambiguity. Rachel Donald has taken issue with Ritchie on the ‘fallacy of data objectivity’.
There have been more fundamental criticisms of the book on grounds of political economy. Bill McGuire has been highly critical on X. Bibi Van de Zee, reviewing the book in the Guardian, says of Ritchie that ‘she doesn’t tackle the things that really keep me awake at night: the domestic and geopolitical barriers’:
‘Of course the heads of huge fossil fuel companies and petro-states are going to be reluctant to give up the things that make them rich and keep them in power, something we saw play out again at Cop28 in Dubai. . . . Yes, vast numbers of us do want to work towards the beautiful sustainable society that Ritchie has in mind. But there are other groups, fuelled by anger or fear or greed, that really do not, and Ritchie does not suggest any tools we can use to get round that colossal obstacle. I understand that it is beyond the scope of her book, beyond the power of most of us, even. But it seems bonkers not to even mention it.’
That is a bit unfair to Ritchie, I think. The last chapter of the book talks about the importance of political engagement, about the need to make sure that environmental action has a seat at the table in Government, and about activist alliances. I can’t speak for Ritchie, but I guess she might say that focusing on evidence-based policy change is an effective way to challenge vested interests. That is one place to start.